Not All PhDs Are Created Equally
This is the fourth of a series of articles on my adventures and misadventures from my way-too-long 24 years in academia. See the first article here.
I left my dream job after only two years. Unlike my mentor Mr. Wilson who inspired me to pursue and land my dream job as a physics instructor at a community college, I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing for 40 years, as he did.
Add to that what must have been a low point for community college salaries in California. I was making $20,000/year in the early 1980s at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) with a master’s degree in a technical field.
I decided I would return to school to pursue my PhD. Here is where the path forked for me. I could have returned to the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) to pursue a PhD in physics. That path was fully open to me for two years after leaving with my master’s degree.
I didn’t choose that route, in part because I didn’t really want a PhD in physics. I figured I’d do something more applied with my PhD. So, I looked at electrical engineering. The irony of that choice is that I had switched my major from electrical engineering to physics as an undergrad at the University of California, Davis (UCD).
Most likely, I could have applied to and been accepted to the electrical engineering program at UCB. However, since I had eloped with one of my first students, Shirley (not her real name), while teaching at SRJC, and she had transferred to UCD to pursue her bachelor’s degree, I applied to and was accepted into the PhD program in electrical engineering at UCD.
As I wrote about in the article about my dream job, that $20,000/year salary was too paltry for me to upgrade from my college car that was falling apart. The irony of this situation is that when I got accepted to my PhD program, I immediately took out a $10,000 student loan in order to buy a new car. Shirley and I scraped together some additional funds along with the $10,000 and we bought a brand new 1984 Toyota 4Runner!
I’m not sure how well universities support graduate students these days, but back in the 1980s, at least in the sciences and engineering, my experience was fantastic. When I was attending UCB for my master’s degree, the university fees were waived, and I was paid enough as a teaching assistant (TA) to live on. At that time, it was around $1000/month.
Back in those days, in California, public universities were not allowed to charge tuition or even to use the term “tuition.” There were some basic fees that totaled less than $1000 per academic year, but it was a dirt-cheap education. In other words, the value was very good.
All of that changed in the years after I completed my higher education in California.
When I was accepted into the PhD program at UCD in electrical engineering, I was able to leverage my teaching experience at SRJC. Instead of being offered a TA position, I was offered the position of Associate-In-Engineering. This title reflected that I would actually be teaching a course instead of serving as TA for a professor. This slightly elevated position also paid somewhere between $100-$150 more per month than the TA positions.
What class did I teach? In my first article in this series I wrote about switching my undergraduate major from electrical engineering to physics because I didn’t like all those circuits classes. So, you guessed it, I was scheduled to teach introductory analog circuit theory at UCD. And since UCD was on the quarter system, I ended up teaching that course 12 times over the course of my five years as a PhD student!
I have two real memories from teaching that class and both occurred during the first year I taught the class.
Just like professors, I was assigned a TA to support me with the class. This person turned out to be Jeff Reed, whom I had taken electrical engineering classes with me as an undergrad at UCD before I switched my major to physics. Unlike the outcome of my 24 years in academia, Jeff has had a very distinguished career at Virginia Tech University in the area of signal processing. It’s been fun to see Jeff’s name in the news from time to time as he is interviewed on topics like advances in wireless technology.
My other memory from teaching that class was about Shirley taking my class. At that point, she was a senior physics undergrad and was planning to apply to enter the master’s degree program in electrical engineering at UCD. So, she was starting with the basics in circuit theory.
So how did it work for me to have my wife as one of my students again? First of all, very few people even knew she was in the class because she didn’t attend the lectures. At that point in her academic career, it was a pretty basic course compared to all the physics she had studied. And she had me at home to answer any questions.
Way back then, many years before I became an Agilist with transparency as one of my primary values, I practiced it in this situation. At the beginning of the course I went in to talk with the department chair. He wasn’t too concerned as he had faith that I would not give her any unfair advantages. His only comment was “just make she doesn’t do too well.” She actually did do very well, ending up with a course percentage in the high 90s. However, I kept it above board by having my buddy Jeff privately proctor the exams with Shirley.
If you were doing the math, you figured out I supported myself at UCD by teaching a class, four out of the five years. Only one year was there some research funding so I could get paid as a research assistant.
Since Shirley and I were married and didn’t want to live like poor students, I supplemented my income a few of the years by teaching one or two courses at a time as an adjunct instructor in the electrical engineering department at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS).
Yes, I taught introductory analog circuit theory a couple of times. I also had the opportunity to teach a couple of other courses, including introduction to digital electronics, and electricity and magnetism.
This latter class was generally regarded as the most difficult course for the electrical engineering majors at CSUS. Matters weren’t helped by a professor who loved to flunk at least half of his students when he taught this class.
When word got around that I would be teaching a section of the class, my section filled up quickly. As it turned out, Shirley’s brother Ross (not his real name) was an electrical engineering major at CSUS at the time and he had already flunked the course once. So, he was very happy I was teaching the class at the just the right time. He made sure some of his buddies enrolled in my section as well.
Because I don’t teach a class to prove I know more than the students and can humble them, most all of the students did well enough to pass the class.
If you have a PhD or are working on one, you may be wondering why I’ve focused much of this article so far on everything other than my PhD research. Let’s explore why.
Back in the 1980s UCD was known primarily for its agriculture and veterinary medicine departments. This makes sense because UCD was created as UCB’s farm school. As UCD grew and became a full-fledged university, other departments were added over time. However, even in the 1980s, many of these departments had not yet attracted the faculty talent for UCD to be considered a top-tier university in these areas of study.
Such was the case with the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department. However, this is not to say there were not some professors doing good research and producing excellent PhD graduates, as evidenced by Jeff Reed.
However, coming from a background predominantly in physics, I was interested in research areas in applied physics. This led me to choose a research advisor who, in hindsight, had some red flags that could have clued me into selecting someone else. For example, he spent copious amounts of time studying the bible that might otherwise have been spent on academic research areas. Also, he and a fellow researcher at another university in California had written and continued to write a series of articles in which they argued against the existence of Bloch waves that every physics student learns about in their solid state physics course. Spending years trying to prove a negative is not a path to building a solid reputation as a researcher.
The research area I worked on with my advisor was driven primarily by a visiting professor from China who was in residence for two years at UCD. This professor (I’ll call Yen) was interested in studying electron transport in GaAs, an alternative semiconductor material to silicon, which was and still is the most commonly used material for building semiconductor-based microelectronics.
The time frame was the mid 1980s and Chinese researchers at that time did not yet have much access to computers. Yen came to UCD to write a Monte Carlo simulation that would form the basis for simulations into hot (high energy) electron transport in GaAs. He actually handed me a stack of small strips of paper on which each strip of paper was a line of FORTRAN code making up the Monte Carlo simulation.
I proceeded to the engineering computer center and got signed up with an account on the 32-bit VAX midframe computer. One line at a time, on a dumb terminal, I typed in the code for the Monte Carlo simulation while spending time understanding the underlying transport physics that included an electric field and several scattering mechanisms.
Monte Carlo simulations are used in many fields of research. The term Monte Carlo refers to the famous gambling city in Monaco because the simulations are based on random numbers. Running many tens or hundreds of thousands of simulations using random numbers leads to a statistically significant result when some type of random process is involved. In the case of electrons moving through GaAs, the time intervals at which an electron gets scattered (or deflected) from its straight line, electric field-based acceleration through the crystal due to a number of mechanisms, occur randomly. Using a simulation with randomly generated time intervals between scattering events, as well as random numbers, weighted appropriately, to select the specific scattering mechanism for each collision, leads to an accurate simulation of the overall transport of an electron through the GaAs crystal.
Using the results we obtained from the Monte Carlo simulations, in subsequent years after Yen returned to China, we were able to publish some incremental improvements to analytical transport models based on hydrodynamic equations that many others had published on previously.
This body of work proved to be sufficient for me to write my PhD thesis. At the end of my fifth year I was ready to defend my thesis in front of my thesis committee, consisting of my advisor plus two other professors. I showed up at the allotted time on that morning and only one member of my thesis committee showed up! Even my thesis advisor didn’t show up. The one professor who did show up was so disgusted, he told me I didn’t need to defend my thesis. And so, my time as a PhD student ended with a whimper instead of a bang.
With a less than stellar PhD experience, that didn’t include any conference presentations, my options were limited. As it turned out, once again for personal reasons, the next chapter in my academic career would lead me back to UCB, as I‘ve written about in my next article.